Addo Elephant National Park is believed to be the most diverse game park on Earth. Certainly it’s one of South Africa’s great conservation success stories and remains a work in progress.
Words: Keri Harvey
Pictures: Bridgena Barnard and Keri Harvey, www.keri-harvey.com
“I take my hat off to Harold Trollope, the first park manager,” says Addo Elephant National Park conservation manager, John Adendorff. “It all started with him when the park was declared in 1931. On horseback, he drove the remaining 11 elephants in the area into the new park and contained them by burning lichen harvested in the Addo thicket at night, and throwing flares. Then it was just 4 000 hectares; now it’s nearly 50 times the size.”
John grew up in Kruger and followed his father to become a ranger. When he arrived in Addo in 1991, the park was just 11 000 hectares, with 26 000 hectares of the adjacent Zuurberg National Park.
Today Addo is rated a mega park of 186 000 hectares on land, plus Bird Island with its massive breeding colony of 200 000 gannets, and St Croix Island that holds the world’s largest breeding ground of African Penguins. A further 200 000 hectares of marine protected area is in the planning and this will include the coastline from Kouga to Kenton-on-Sea.
“We’ve gone from a little park conserving a few elephants to possibly the world’s most diverse park that traverses five biomes – Karoo, grassland, fynbos, thicket and forest,” explains John. “Plus we have the Big Seven of elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, great white shark and southern right whale within our boundaries. There is nowhere else on Earth like this. We’re also conserving important species like flightless dung beetles that only occur in this part of the Eastern Cape, and the endangered African Penguins whose numbers continue to decline due to depleted prey fish species and possible climate change. It’s a great responsibility, with never a dull day.”
Still, only about a quarter of Addo’s land is being used because the rest still needs roads and fences. But it won’t be with Armstrong Fences – the unique elephant-proof fence of old, steel tram tracks and cabling developed by ex park manager Graham Armstrong. The Armstrong Fence is internationally renowned and the Holy Grail of elephant fences, but has become too expensive to erect – so electrified fences will have to suffice.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” John continues. When he arrived in Addo 25 years ago there were just 122 elephant and now there are more than 600. Buffalo numbered 190 and now there are about 1 000 that are disease-free and regularly sold off to facilitate buying more land to extend the park. Many species that historically lived in the park have also been reintroduced – such as lion, hyena, cheetah and mountain zebra.
There are the unusual endemics like the red-finned minnow that lives only in specific rivers of the Zuurberg, and the nocturnal hairy-footed gerbil, at home on the park’s coastal dune field – the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere. There are also four species of cycad in the Zuurberg section of the park, two of which are endemic and highly endangered.
A four-by-four trail traverses the Zuurberg and follows the old wagon route into the interior, where wagons with broken backs can be seen abandoned along the way. And if you know where to look en route you’ll see the names of soldiers carved on trees. “They’re presumed to be English soldiers from the Boer War,” says John. “This was the furthest south General Jan Smuts went, but he had to be carried out of Addo on horseback after he ate green cycad seed, which is highly toxic.”
Addo’s conservation focus has changed from species to ecosystems, explains John. “We now focus on the connectivity between ecosystems, and watch key species to guide us. Carrying capacities have been done away with because we don’t need to know the ideal number of elephant for Addo, since entire ecosystems are protected to function optimally.”
The marine islands are included and it’s hoped small-scale tourism there will happen too. “It’s a three-hour trip by boat on a good day,” says John, “and helicopter trips are possible. But we want to keep it very low impact to protect the bird life.”
Beautiful, blood-red Bird Island Lighthouse is also there, with the wreck of the Doddington lying at its feet – and the ghost of Mrs Hansen is said to still visit. Wide-eyed lighthouse maintenance staff say she pulls off their blankets when they overnight on the island. According to legend, the lighthouse-keeper’s wife suffered from depression and drowned in a water tank. She still haunts the island, although the thousands of gannets and penguins seem unperturbed.
Addo remains a work in progress, John explains. “Elephants will most likely never walk on the beaches, but they will move more freely in the future. There’s a railway line through the park, so we are looking at overhead animal bridges so elephants can cross safely. It’s exciting because there is always so much to do here with continuous expansion.”
Strangely, John says poaching is not a current problem in the park. “We are proactive and have great relations with our neighbours. The surrounding community buys in to the park’s goals. They understand the importance of conservation and the protection of natural heritage. They are our eyes and ears on the ground, which is one of the reasons we don’t have serious poaching problems. For me the ultimate success of the park is this local community support.”
Lindiwe Makaza, affectionately known by her clan name of Ma Mtshawe, has lived in the community alongside the park for decades. A delicate 75-year-old, she can almost touch the park fence from her sitting-room window. “We continue to report anything we hear – about hunting, poaching, anything – to the park,” she says, “because we are proud of what they do.”
Along with many others in the local community, Ma Mtshawe visits the park regularly. Community officer Temba Mangcaka says that local elders and school groups have free access to the park, by arrangement, and SANParks regularly hosts trips into the park for the community. The park also helps the community where possible and donates furniture to them when accommodation upgrades are done. Ma Mtshawe has been a lucky recipient and has also had her house painted by the park.
Addo is a busy place with about 200 000 tourists a year and a 90 per cent occupancy, which is good news for Simni Nogaya. Arguably he has the most fun job in the park, as a qualified hop-in guide trained under the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa. Simni is the only such guide across all the SANParks, and literally hops into the passenger seat and guides tourists through Addo, giving information on whatever they see along the way.
Simni was born and bred in Kirkwood, just a few kilometres from Addo, and knows everything about the area, from geology and geography to stars, animals, trees, plants and birds, as well as local legend and culture. “I’m like a hitchhiking guide,” he jokes, “and some days there are no cars to ride with; then other days are crazy busy. I absolutely love what I do because you never know what’s going to happen. New faces, new encounters and experiences and learning from guests from around the world. I am definitely meant to be doing this job.”
For John Adendorff, seeing Addo develop over the years has been thrilling. “The game management here is tops and the diversity is mind-blowing. It’s a very special place for me, and the elephants are the most trusting I have encountered anywhere in Africa.” Almost as if they’re historically grateful for the park as a sanctuary for pachyderms. Most likely, if dung beetles could talk, they’d say the same.
Did You Know?
- A huge leopard tortoise called Domdrag (car-jack) used to lift cars in Addo in a show of dominance. He died after falling into an aardvark hole and his shell is on display at the Main Rest Camp reception.
- Hapoor (nicked ear) was the legendary leader of the Addo elephants for 24 years from 1944-1968 and had an aggressive dislike for humans. The nick in his ear is said to have been caused by a hunter’s bullet. After being deposed, Hapoor succeeded in climbing over the Armstrong Fence but had to be shot because of his aggressive nature. His head is now mounted in the Interpretive Centre in the park.